Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, with more than 2000 Australians dying of skin cancer each year. Despite being one of the most preventable cancers, two out of three Australians will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer before the age of 70.
Types of skin cancer
Skin cancer forms when skin cells are damaged by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. There are three main types of skin cancer:
- Basal cell carcinoma is the most common and least dangerous form of skin cancer.
- Squamous cell carcinoma is less common but more dangerous than basal cell carcinoma.
- Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer and the least common. Melanoma kills more than twice as many men as women in Australia, and is the third most common cancer in men (after prostate and bowel cancer).
Am I at risk?
Anyone can develop skin cancer, regardless of their skin colour or general health. However, the risk is higher for people who:
- previously had a skin cancer and/or have a family history of skin cancer
- have a large number of moles on their skin
- have a skin type that is sensitive to ultraviolet (UV) radiation and burns easily
- have a history of severe/blistering sunburns
- spend a lot of time outdoors, unprotected, during their lifetime
- actively tan or use solariums or sunlamps
- work outdoors.
What are the symptoms?
Skin cancer found early can usually be successfully treated. However, if left untreated, skin cancer can be fatal.
It's important to get to know your skin and what is normal for you, so changes will be quickly noticed. Don't just rely on an annual skin check to detect any suspicious spots.
All Australians should become familiar with their skin. Check all of your skin, not just sun-exposed areas. If you notice anything unusual, including any change in shape, colour or size of a spot, or the development of a new spot, visit your doctor as soon as possible.
What can I do to reduce my risk?
You can reduce your risk of skin cancer at any age by using a combination of sun protection measures (clothing, hat, sunscreen, shade and sunglasses) during the daily sun protection times. Check the daily sun protection times for your location via the free SunSmart app, in the weather section of the newspaper or via the SunSmart or Bureau of Meteorology websites. The app lets you know whe you do and don't need sun protecton, making it easier than ever to be smart about your sun exposure all year.
During sun protection times:
- Slip on sun-protective clothing that covers as much skin as possible
- Slop on SPF30 or higher, board-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen at least 20 minutes before going outdoors and re-apply every two hours
- Slap on a broad-brimmed hat that protects your face, head, neck and ears
- Seek shade
- Slide on sunglasses that meet Australian Standards (AS:1067)
Being SunSmart: finding a balance
The sun's UV radiation is the major cause of skin cancer and the best natural source of vitamin D, which is needed for strong bones and overall health. It's important to take a balanced approach to UV exposure to reduce the risk of skin cancer, while getting some exposure to help with vitamin D levels.
From September to April in Victoria (when UV levels are generally high), a combination of sun protection mesures should be used – even for people who have been diagnosed with a vitamin D deficiency. During this time of year, most people make enough vitamin D because UV levels are high and more time is spent outdoors. During these months, most Victorians need just a few minutes of mid-morning or mid-afternoon sun exposure for their vitamin D needs, and should be extra cautious in the middle of the day when UV levels are most intense.
From May to August in Victoria (when UV levels are generally lower), sun protection is not recommended, unless near reflective surfaces such as snow or if UV levels reach 3 or higher. At this time, people are encouraged to be outdoors around midday each day, with some skin uncovered. Being physically active outdoors will also help the body to make vitamin D. People who work outdoors for long periods of time may need sun protection all year, as they have an increased risk of sun cancer.
For more information:
David’s neighbour (age 42) has been extra conscious about sun protection after losing a friend to skin cancer a few years ago. He also looks after himself by exercising regularly and eating a balanced diet.